Every now and then, a personality comes along to remind you that life really is like the movies and not the other way around. The movie producer Robert Evans was one. He died the other day at 89, but I’m sometimes not certain he existed on our actual, molecular, physical plane. He seemed too good a story to have happened in fact, if only because the stories he told about himself were so fabulous in all senses of the word.
Like all long careers in Hollywood, Evans’s was a roller-coaster ride of triumphs and ignominy. Without him as producer and/or studio head, we wouldn’t have “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), “Chinatown” (1974) and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “Love Story” (1970) and “The Odd Couple” (1968) and “True Grit” (1969). It goes on: “Harold and Maude” (1971) and “Serpico” (1973) and “The Conversation” (1974) and “Marathon Man” (1976) and “Urban Cowboy” (1980). Sometimes it seems as if all the movies worth talking about in the Me Decade trace their genesis or development to him.
But there’s also the sense that Robert Evans was his own most glittering production. As the 36-year-old “boy genius” who in five years transformed Paramount Pictures from Hollywood’s least-profitable studio to its most-, Evans was an anomaly: a larger-than-life movie executive just as the breed was dying out. The film industry in the late 1960s was a business in flux, with faceless conglomerates buying up the legendary film factories. Yet when Gulf+Western acquired Paramount Pictures, in 1966, CEO Charles Bluhdorn picked Evans to run the show, based primarily on a laudatory New York Times article by journalist Peter Bart. (Evans returned the favor by making Bart one of his first hires.)
The man had a talent for getting noticed. Born Robert Shapera in 1930 to a New York City dentist and his wife, Evans had his eye on the spotlight early on, initially as an actor. When that didn’t pan out, he joined his brother’s clothing company, Evan-Picone. (“I was in women’s pants,” the producer would later growl with the hubba-hubba terseness that became a trademark.) On a mid-1950s business trip out West, he was spotted poolside by Norma Shearer, an aging queen of MGM, who thought he might play her late husband, the original Hollywood boy genius, Irving Thalberg, in an upcoming film. That’s the legend, anyway, as is the anecdote that gave Evans the title of his 1994 autobiography and a subsequent 2002 documentary.
Cast to play the lead in 20th Century Fox’s 1957 production of “The Sun Also Rises,” Evans found himself opposed by author Ernest Hemingway, costar Ava Gardner, and almost everyone down to the key grip. But Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck watched Evans film a bullfight sequence from a seat in the arena, stood up, and bellowed, “The kid stays in the picture!” And so he did. That’s the legend, anyway.
Soon enough, the kid figured he was no actor and that the real money was in what Zanuck was doing. The moguls of the Golden Age had left the building by then; Louis B. Mayer of MGM, Jack Warner of Warner Bros., independent mavericks like Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick, whose lives and sayings sometimes got more press than their pictures. When Evans was tapped to run Paramount, it was a roll of the dice by his new boss Bluhdorn but also a way of keeping faith with the kind of executive Hollywood knew best: an outsize figure who loved the movies as much, if not occasionally more, than the bottom line.
How many studio executives marry a gorgeous movie star? Well, most of them. How many get publicly dumped when that wife runs away with her costar, as Ali MacGraw did with Steve McQueen on the set of “The Getaway” (1972)? She was the only wife Evans mentions in “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” but there were six other marriages, none of which lasted more than three years. One marriage, to actress Catherine Oxenberg, in 1998, lasted nine days. In the film version of “Kid,” a section is given over to an orgiastic montage of the women in Robert Evans’s life in which their glamorous faces eventually become a blur next to his taut, ageless, eternally suntanned grin. God knows what the #MeToo movement would have done with him (or his close friendships with Roman Polanski and other very bad boys of 1970s Hollywood), but he probably would have survived, as he survived everything.
He survived a raging cocaine addiction, which sent his brother and an associate to prison and saw Evans sentenced to producing an all-star (and now hilariously unwatchable) anti-drug special. He survived being linked to the 1983 murder of Roy Radin, a co-producer with Evans on “The Cotton Club.” (Radin’s coke dealer, Karen Greenberger, and three others were ultimately convicted of the crime.) He survived battles with filmmakers on movie sets and every so often in court, with Francis Ford Coppola earning a status as Best Frenemy on the many projects they worked on together. Coppola accused the producer of meddling above and beyond the call of duty during “The Godfather” shoot, but Evans’s defenders claim his input turned a brilliant mess into a classic for the ages.
Evans also survived a 1998 stroke to write his memoirs (a second volume, ”The Fat Lady Sings,” was published in 2013) and stage a comeback as a grizzled mentor to a new generation of Hollywood wiseguys. A year before the stroke, he had already been immortalized by Dustin Hoffman’s swaggeringly Evans-esque producer in the political satire “Wag the Dog.” And to watch the documentary version of “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” or to listen to the audiobook from which the film takes its voice-over narration, is to hear Robert Evans build and burnish his own myth, that of the ultimate Tinseltown insider/outsider/king/victim, loved by the ladies and tossed about by fate. He leaves behind some great, great movies, and an awful lot of good ones, even if Francis Ford Coppola is getting the last laugh this fall with a director’s cut of “The Cotton Club” that’s making the rounds.
Above all, Evans leaves behind a promise he extended during the New Hollywood era and that has seemed tantalizingly within reach ever since — that with hustle and luck and confidence and charm, you can make a lot of money and good art while having the time of your life.
That’s the legend, anyway. If anyone knew it was all in the telling, it was Robert Evans.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.